September 12, 2008
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A Therapist Counsels Parents of Adopted Babies, Hospitalized Babies and other BABIES SEPARATED FROM MOTHERS AT BIRTH
by Marcy Axness, Ph.D.
"You don't have to feel guilty, but you do have to understand what they have experienced. It's about giving love to heal."
[The following is an interview about the trauma of infant maternal separation, with Dr. Wendy McCord, a nationally recognized pre- and perinatal psychologist and family therapist. Pre- and perinatal psychotherapy assumes the wisdom and presence of inner life in prenates and newborns. Despite the specific discussion of adoption, many of Dr. McCord's comments and suggestions are directly relevant to babies who have been premature, stayed in the NICU, or for other reasons been separated from their mothers at or shortly after birth.]
M.A.: What should adoptive parents know when they bring home their baby?
W.M. All adopted babies, I think you can pretty much say, are in shock, which is the most severe level of trauma. They need to be held a lot, they need to be given true empathy, and what they do needs to be interpreted in terms of their loss. And parents who are in denial of this add another trauma to what the baby's already suffered.
M.A.: It sounds so hopeless, so irreversible. Is there something they can do?
W.M. Absolutely. If they can come to their child with this understanding, then they can begin to empathize with the baby's experience. So if an infant comes to them with colic, or with tremendous startle responses, or fear, or is unable to attach or unable to be held or comforted, instead of feeling like the child doesn't like them, they can begin to say to this baby, "You must feel really sad, you must feel really lost. You miss your mother. You miss your connection. You've lost something very important, and I understand."
"I'm not the mom you expected, I don't smell like her, I don't sound like her. I'm a different mom, and I love you, and I'm not going to leave you."
And you have to say it, out loud. These are tremedously healing things for this infant to hear, and it will allow the baby to cry, it will allow the baby to mourn.
Another specific thing they can do is to find out about the birth, and about the birthmother and what she went through. What was the birth like? Did the mother see the baby, or hold him? Those things are significant, and have meaning to the infant.
M.A. And what about a baby who is in NICU, because of prematurity or other complication?
W.M. There are many different levels of shock, but certainly any kind of medical procedure, or isolation, or anything very scary and fearful, like the baby not being with the mother and not being able to nurse, would cause some level of trauma.
It's not about guilt, not that they did anything wrong-these things are sometimes necessary-but it can be healed much more easily by allowing the child to express his feelings, which they can interpret based on what the baby went through.
"You must have really missed me, I really missed you, you had some scary and painful things happen to you, I'm really sorry. I understand that you're sad, or angry."
M.A.: How can I expect a newborn baby to respond to the words I say? He doesn't understand language.
W.M. Babies are much more conscious than they're given credit for. Medical science is beginning to understand more and more about what babies are capable of. They're actually realizing that babies understand math, that they understand concepts, that they identify people, that they are much, much smarter than we have understood. But babies are also psychologically brilliant, and probably more in touch with their feelings and more in touch with what's going on, than we ever realized.
M.A.: I'm afraid that by saying those things to him, that I'll be putting awful ideas into his head.
W.M. I think one of the most ludicrous ideas is that you're hiding anything from a baby. Years ago people wouldn't tell children that they were adopted, and so they would grow up-and many such adoptees will tell you this-knowing that something was terribly wrong. And when they were told the truth, although it may have been interpreted as a painful or terrible secret, it made sense, and it made their life make sense, and it gave them an understanding of this burden they were carrying, like not feeling right about themselves.
So the idea that telling the truth to an infant is going to put an idea in their mind is absurd-they were there, they know. They know on a very primal, instinctual level. All you're doing is telling them that the hurt they feel is real, which is what makes us sane. It's what truly loving is-affirming that person's honest experience. So it's exactly the opposite of putting awful ideas into his head.
M.A:. How do I know if it's helping?
W.M. You'll know immediately. The baby will know, and you will know. They just... hear you, I don't know how to say it-they hear you and they feel understood. It's miraculous to see it. They just relax. It's totally healing.
Babies who've been separated from their mothers do have to mourn. And they do have to be sick. And they need somebody just to understand why, and to allow it. And then they can heal.
(c) 2004, by Marcy Axness, Ph.D.